Berlin Man Supposedly Cured of HIV
Numerous news reports have declared what seemed impossible: A Berlin man, the so-called “Berlin Patient,” appears to have been cured of HIV through an adult stem cell transplant intended to treat his leukemia.
Timothy Ray Brown, 42, has remained HIV-free since he received a blood stem cell transplant in 2007 as part of a lengthy treatment course for leukemia. Blood stem cell transplants are common in treating leukemia patients, but doctors in Brown’s case deliberately chose a stem cell donor with a naturally occurring, but rare, genetic mutation that prevents the most common form of HIV from infecting T CD4 immune cells. After the transplant, Brown’s body showed no sign of the virus and he was able to stop taking HIV antiretroviral drugs.
Additional research is needed to determine whether stem cell transplants can lead to the same results in other HIV/AIDS patients or whether Brown’s case will remain an isolated incident. After all, Brown was not part of a regulated research study, and the stated purpose of the stem cell transplant was to treat his leukemia, not his HIV. But between this breakthrough and the recent discovery that men who took the antiretroviral drug Truvada had a lower risk of contracting HIV, we are coming closer to the day when this virus will be eradicated. The Reform Movement has long supported efforts in fighting the global HIV/AIDS crisis as part of answering the Jewish call to heal the sick.
Although we celebrate this momentous breakthrough, we caution that it should not be seen as vindication for opponents of embryonic stem cell research, who have long argued that adult stem cell research is a more productive alternative. The success of this trial does not change the scientific fact that in comparison to embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells are more difficult to obtain, available in smaller quantities in the body and limited in the types of cell they can become.
Moreover, the Berlin trial succeeded in large part due to continued investment in adult stem cell research since the cells were discovered in the 1950s. Far from bolstering the argument that adult stem cell research is superior, this study suggests that embryonic stem cells, which were discovered less than 15 years ago, could yield similarly stunning results if the research was adequately funded.
The Reform Movement strongly supports continued investment in both embryonic and adult stem cell research. As the 2003 URJ Resolution on Stem Cell Research states:
The moral imperative to pursue stem cell research is clear; it is an embodiment of the mitzvah, of healing. Our tradition requires that we use all available knowledge to heal the ill, and “when one delays in doing so, it is as if he has shed blood” (Shulchan Aruch, Yorei De`ah 336:1).
To this end, we call on Congress to pass the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act (HR 873/S 487), which will codify President Obama’s embryonic stem cell research policy instead of leaving funding of this vital research vulnerable to the changing whims of future presidents.
This is a great moment in history, particularly for the immense hope it gives to the more than 33 million people living with HIV/AIDS worldwide. We have the capacity to save the lives of millions; we just need the will to ensure that the proper funding and supports are in place.